Friday, July 08, 2011

The Secret Flagellants of Thuringia

If ever I have my own Goth band, I want to call it The Secret Flagellants of Thuringia. Until this morning, I had never thought of connecting the name to CNBC.

I made the mistake of watching CNBC with breakfast, waiting for the employment report, which shows job growth alarmingly weak, including a rise in the unemployment rate from 9.1% to 9.2%, and downward revisions to job growth estimates for prior months. Simultaneously, stock prices were falling. Joe Kiernan, one who can always be counted on to appreciate the suffering of the masses, said "I hope not too many people were too long," i.e., long on stocks. Over 14 million people are unemployed in the US (more if you count discouraged workers) and wages are falling. But Joe was quick to realize that people who are big on stocks, after making big gains the past twelve months, might suffer a little bit today.

Kiernan and Santelli then excoriated Mark Zandi (whose company is paid lots of money for his economic forecasts and who was an economic advisor to the John McCain presidential campaign) for mentioning that the potential for default on US debt is adding to uncertainty in the economy, and could harm the employment outlook, along with lack of consumer demand. No, they yelled at Zandi, it's regulatory uncertainty that's causing businesses to sit on hoards of cash. The other three economists in the segment, Diane Swonk, Steve Liesman, and someone whose name I didn't catch all agreed that lack of consumer demand is a problem and more short-term fiscal stimulus is needed.

It was too ugly to watch, so I tuned in the History Channel while finishing my oatmeal, where a documentary about the Black Plague was on. A cult of flagellants wandered Europe whipping themselves bloody, believing that the plague was God's punishment for their sins and they needed to suffer to end the plague. At least they were inflicting pain upon themselves. Today's superstitious cult - the Pain Caucus, as Krugman calls them - want to inflict more pain on the unemployed and underemployed, but not on themselves.

Thank you, Mr. Kiernan, for reminding me of the suffering of the rentier class. It's easy to forget them when unemployment is at 9.2%.


Monday, July 04, 2011

Happy Defeat of Napoleon Day

Tonight all over the USA fireworks will burst (except in towns that have cancelled them to reduce budget deficits caused by the recession.) As the pyrotechnics explode overhead, the oohs and ahs will be accompanied by music that celebrates the defeat of Napoleon by Tsarist Russia and a pop song about the poor treatment of Vietnam Veterans.

Of course I'm talking about the 1812 Overture and Born in the USA. I like both pieces of music a lot. Both are catchy. Both have melodies with a palpable sense of triumph.

The cathchiest bits of the 1812 Overture quote the Marseillaise, France's national anthem. Tchaikovsky also quotes Russian folk melodies and God Save the Tsar. The music commemorates Napoleon's retreat from Russia in 1812 after having defeated the Russian army. Upon his arrival in Moscow, he discovered the city deserted and all the provisions gone with the remains of the Russian army or burned. He suffered casualty rates of 90% fleeing to Poland as winter came on.

So 1812 could symbolize Pyrrhic victory or the Romanovs or just a fun piece of music. We still have Born in the USA. This one has lyrics we've heard on the radio dozens of times:

I had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone


People might not know the back story to the 1812 Overture. It has no lyrics, just that inspirational music. But people can hear the lyrics to Born in the USA. I've even heard people singing along as orchestras played the music. People know the lyrics and sing along triumphantly, missing the irony and adding to it with their ignorance.

I wonder how that looks to the rest of the world, when they see news clips of Americans punching the air and shouting Born in the USA. Do people who speak English as a second language have any greater appreciation of the irony?